Can Papa Save Anyone? Concluding Thoughts on False Teaching in The Shack

In William Young’s The Shack, God the Father appears to the main character, Mack, in the form of a jolly African American woman named, Papa. Some of the most explicitly theological, teachable moments are built around Mack’s conversations with Papa. You could say that Papa spends most of her/his time in the book preaching to Mack.
Mack has endured a significant and tragic loss in his life and it has made him feeling angry, bitter, doubtful and abandoned by God. Mack’s crisis is a crisis of faith in the face of profound suffering. He has lost someone dear to him and has turned away from God. God’s solution is to invite Mack to a remote weekend getaway so they can have a little chat.
What I’d like to do with one of these conversations is contrast Papa of The Shack with the great I AM of the Bible and draw some conclusions from the biblical texts. The question we’re asking is, “Can Papa actually save anyone, much less deal with suffering?”

Take a look at what Papa says to Mack about forgiveness of sin on page 225.

Papa: “Forgiveness does not establish relationship. In Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship. … When Jesus forgave those who nailed him to the cross they were no longer in his debt, nor mine. In my relationship with those men, I will never bring up what they did, or shame them, or embarrass them.”

What you have here is, unfortunately, a fairly common understanding of what Jesus accomplished at the cross. Unfortunately, it’s so wrong. Humanity, as William Young sees it, has been put in a neutral place because of what Jesus did on the cross. Because Jesus died on the cross, humanity is now in a place to act on their good nature and choose Christ, or act on their bad nature and not choose Christ. What’s wrong with this assumption? Where do I begin?
The Bible clearly teaches that humanity is not in a neutral state. Even reason teaches we are not in a neutral state. Just think about any relationship you’ve ever had! Not choosing to do someone good or love someone implies the opposite does it not? Take a look at what the Bible says about human nature.

Ephesians 2:1 & 3, “dead in trespasses and sins,” “sons of disobedience,” “by nature children of [God’s] wrath.
Romans 3:10-12, “None is righteous, no not one,” “no one seeks for God,” “All have turned aside,” “become worthless,” “no one does good, not even one.
Isaiah 64:6, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.”

There’s more, but I think Scripture is clear. Paul is explicit in Ephesians that those who exist outside of a relationship with Christ exist under God’s wrath. Jonathan Edwards summarized it this way in compelling his people to repent and trust a merciful God who had not yet given them what they deserved for their sin.

The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood. Thus are all you that never passed under a great change of heart by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin to a state of new and before altogether unexperienced light and life…you are thus in the hands of an angry God; ’tis nothing but his mere pleasure that keeps you from being this moment swallowed up in everlasting destruction.

Scripture and preachers of old agree. Man is lost and helpless in sin and no matter how flowery Papa’s language and philosophy is, there is no reasoning or coddling sinners like us into repentance and relationship with God. Papa won’t…can’t change Mack. Mack has to do that himself. What a hopeless message! What an impotent god!

Consider, in contrast, the Great LORD, in a passage like Ezekiel 16.
1 “Again the word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations, 3 and say, Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. 4 And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. 5 No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born.”

Consider the language here as a picture of sinful man. This is the picture that’s being painted. Humanity, in their natural, sinful, fallen state – humanity according to Ephesians 2, Romans 3, and Isaiah 64. Where is this child’s hope? Is this child going to do anything about her suffering? Is this child going to do anything about her own situation? No. She’s helpless, lost, and as good as dead.

So what is God’s solution? Papa’s would be to have a conversation with her about how God is love and how he has a wonderful plan for her life if she would only quit wallowing in her own blood. The picture of Papa treating sinful mankind in this passage the way she treated Mack would be comical if it wasn’t so absurd and sad. Here’s what the LORD does.

6 “And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!

Did you catch that? One word to change a life. One word to raise the dead in trespasses, object of wrath sinner, to new life. One word: ‘Live!”

Papa can’t do that. Papa waits for children wallowing in their own blood to save themselves. God, my God…the God of the Bible, the LORD of hosts, I AM, Yahweh, says one word and creates a whole new life.
Personally, I don’t trust a god like Papa to give me an answer or provide me an ounce of hope in the face of suffering, not mention save lost and dying sinners. I’ll take the God of the Bible. He’s the One worthy of our praise and affection. To Him be glory forever!


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